Wandering in the Himalayas

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But man’s capacities have never been measured; nor are we to judge of what he can do by any precedents, so little has been tried. (Walden)

Sorry for being dramatic with the Walden quote. I wasn’t actually that intense.

I set out on the 11th of November with the intention of hiking alone to Pindari glacier. I didn’t make it all the way to the glacier, but I had a surprising and rewarding experience nonetheless. The hike is normally done in six days but I was making time to complete it in 4 or 5. As I am traveling for a year, I am traveling light (see this previous post) except for the books. Because I was going so far on my own, I decided to leave almost all of my things with my friend Prakash, who took them from Chaukori to Nainital, where I was planning to meet him and stay with his family after the hike (where I am now, safe and warm). What I had with me was a small drawstring backpack and my camera case. Inside the bag was a first aid kit, a headlamp, toilet paper, soap sheets, a hairbrush, toothbrush, toothpaste, an antibacterial microfiber towel, a Swiss Army knife, chapstick, 25 biscuits, a bottle of water, a notepad, highlighter, Walden, and a pencil. My pre-departure Watson plans had not included going somewhere so cold, so my dressing strategy was layers. I had on 3 pairs of socks and I wore six layers on top and three on the bottom. I bought a knit hat in Berinag for 100 rupees (~$2) but couldn’t justify mittens. Except for a brief naked stint in the Saryu river when I was far enough away from the villages (FREEZING), I didn’t have a wash or change clothes, which was more troubling to me than I thought it would be for 7 days.

I left Chaukori via bus to Bageshwar. By this time I was used to the windy “roads” and terrifying dropoffs. These “roads” are single lane, so when a truck, bus, or jeep is coming the other way (constant use of horns help prevent mid-curve collisions), one pulls off precariously close to the edge. I reached Bageshwar and got on the common transportation in these parts – shared jeep. My first jeep had 17 people in it! (The official limit is 8!) We passed some that were so crowded there were boys sitting on the top in a metal rack with the (UNSTRAPPED) luggage. It took me three jeep rides to get to the daunting first climb, what I like to call the CLIFF OF DOOM. I made it to Supi, my first stop, by sunset (6pm). This village was the nearest I was to any road the whole time – everywhere else I went was not accessible by car. That night I discovered some of the surprising differences from Chaukori (Chinese food?) and I met four hilarious older people from the UK (Ann, Anne, David, and Brian) and they shared some of their whiskey and told me about their holiday walking through villages in this area of Uttarakhand. I will admit it was lovely to have an evening with some English-speaking westerners – we talked about Obama, Assange, the BBC, healthcare… they were the first westerners I’d seen in weeks. We played cards and as it turns out, Anne had an extra pair of gloves that she very kindly gave me. I was particularly comforted by Brian’s presence because his voice sounded exactly like Uncle Monty’s in a Series of Unfortunate Events.

I was sad to leave them the next morning, but the day that followed banished them from my mind as it was quite a violent trip that I demanded of my body. Supi is about 2100m above sea level, which I was more or less accustomed to. But my next stop was over and around a mountain pass – I hiked 1000m up in a total of 4km. On the top it was a dramatic descent and then up again into a new valley and to the last inhabited (but without electricity or running water) village on the route: Khati. I was making time such that I could reach the glacier (with determination) the next day. However, at the outpost I reached that night, I was told the government watchman had left the glacier, and only a baba, or Indian saint, was there for the winter. I could have rented a tent at that point and camped on the glacier, but I was advised against it – both by the people and my gut. Instead, I stayed a frightful night in Khati, in a room I’m sure at least 15 people have been murdered in. I had a hot meal and revised my plan.

I decided to make a complete reverse – instead of having a hike as a break from my project, I decided to make it very much about my project. I visited the school houses and temples in the villages I passed through, beginning with Khati. I met the orphans of the villages, though none spoke English and barely spoke Hindi (like me) because the language in this area is Kumaoni, but I learned a lot in our mostly wordless exchanges, or if someone spoke a small amount of English (usually a few people did and were willing to help). Orphans in this area are almost always taken in by family since they live so close together and rarely move away. They still go to school – though that’s not saying much. At school they do not learn how to read even Sanskrit. In theory they study in Hindi, but in practice they do not know Hindi unless they study in Bageshwar or elsewhere. It was humbling to meet people with such simple lives, many not traveling beyond 50km of their home in their whole life. From Khati (which is just a hundred meters higher than Supi) I went up to a tented encampment that was empty except for the watchman, at an altitude of about 3300m – some 500m below the altitude of Pindari glacier. I stayed there one night and woke at 6am, leaving the camp and its stunning views for a further climb up another couple hundred meters.

I hiked to several different temples, most to the same goddess, on ridge points (with stunning vistas) and then began a rough and often pathless descent (I can still feel it in my calves). I passed through another village where I visited the schoolhouse, but lacked the communication ability to ask about orphans in the village. The next day I hiked back towards the road along the Saryu river (I was going up and down around Pindari valley and Saryu valley) and passed sheep, cattle, and a flour mill – as well as monkeys, martens, and lots of birds. I returned to Supi and met the 5 orphans living in the village (two groups of siblings). I will note I never felt comfortable taking their pictures – they didn’t seem to want it, and I didn’t want them to feel like objects I was coming to study. It was friendlier and more natural to share some Diwali sweets and smiles.

The final day I hiked back down to the road and caught a jeep to Bageshwar, then another jeep to Bhowali, and a final jeep to Nainital. In total it took about 9 hours in jeeps, and the jeep from Bageshwar to Bhowali, over six hours, was a jeep ride from HELL. I was stuffed in the trunk area with 6 men (except at the police checkpoint, where more than half the jeep emptied, only to have them quickly cram back in on the other side as the driver sped away), and the women in the middle seat area were vomiting constantly – in the jeep and out the jeep so that it was streaming along the windows and we couldn’t keep them open for air. What made it worse was that these women were eating some kind of Indian masala equivalent of Cheetos and if they weren’t vomiting they were stuffing their faces!!! This logic is beyond me.

This way of approaching my project – going to villages to talk and meet orphans rather than working through institutions or missionaries – was incredibly enriching and i hope to continue in this vein for some time in each country I visit from here. It was a more organic and truthful way to meet the children, and I found both the villages and the children were happy to help and talk to me, and seemed supportive of my goal.

*All pictures of myself are awkward self-timer shots or awkward pictures taken by the watchmen I encountered on the way. See picture notes for more specificity. I saw yellow-throated martens, macaques, and gray langurs, among other things.

Also, after two months of only Indian food (roti, chapati, rice, daal, curries…) I would probably walk 50km for a piece of decent pizza or a sandwich (Hollandia from Panos!!!).

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